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Bernie Bulkin

Crash Course


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Why putting pressure on people is a good thing


One technique open to the team leader, business leader, chief executive, is to put staff under pressure to raise their game. There are different forms of words that do this, but essentially it comes down to two things:

  • Accountable individuals are pushed to commit, to deliver something beyond what they believe is possible
  • Having made that commitment, the leader makes clear that failure to deliver will be a disappointment he or she will take very personally.

If you are a leader, you will know that it can be effective to people under pressure in this way, sometimes under extreme pressure, to perform.

We sometimes achieve great things as a result of the leader exerting that pressure, because under stress we raise the intensity with which we do our jobs.

But we need to be alert to the possibility that the pressure will cause people to do things that they know are wrong, just because it is the only way they can see to satisfy the boss.

The senior executive needs to be very alert to this possibility, and put in place checks to be sure that it is not happening. The board takes on this role with respect to the CEO and the CFO.

What do I mean by ‘checks’?

Well, if the target is to achieve a step increase in sales, as it often is, the financial arm of the company needs to be more vigilant than usual in looking at expenditures that might signal inappropriate relations with customers, or contracts that increase sales but cut margins. If it is to get out a new product, there may need to be a special panel in the company to be sure that all standards and testing for the product was carried out – no shortcuts that could endanger reputation.

I give an example of this in my book, Crash Course.

If the CFO and CEO are managing a tight cash or debt position, the audit committee of the board needs to be particularly alert to being sure that all statutory obligations, such as payments to the pension fund, are being met in a timely way.

There is another consequence of pressure that requires alertness and sensitivity from leadership: the physical and mental health of the team members. Of course you should always be watching this, but when my team is under pressure, perhaps struggling to achieve objectives, I am especially looking for unexplained absences, explosions of temper, team members going off on their own away from colleagues, changes in dress or physical appearance, anything signalling a person not coping physically or mentally.

It is useful for a team leader to know if any team members have a history of problems under pressure, but this is not usually something that is shared with the leader by HR or by individuals themselves.

Remember also that problems at home can become aggravated in pressure situations at work. The excellent HR manager is especially sensitive to all of these signs of stress. It is one of many reasons that first class HR staff are not sitting in their office but are out and about in the workplace.

And they are never having a sandwich lunch at their desk, but are in the cafeteria with staff watching and listening for signs of pressure gone wrong.

Putting pressure on the team is a tool for leaders to use in order to achieve extraordinary performance. We learn that setting expectations beyond what people believe is possible can lead to great achievements.

None of what I have said by way of caution is meant to deter you from using this tool, but as with any tool it must be used with attention to the health and wellbeing of the individual, and the integrity of the corporation.

One Response

  1. I do think stress and
    I do think stress and pressure are fine motivators if you are a person who thrives on stress. But if you are like me – anxious and somewhat neurotic, putting pressure on me would be of no help at all. Pressure as a tool can be used best when you know whom to utilize it upon and whom not to.


    For insights about employee engagement, check out our blog –

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Bernie Bulkin


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